TV Review – Sierra Burgess Is a Loser
Shannon Purser only did three episodes of the hit, Netflix series Stranger Things. But social media was so upset by what happened to her character, Barb, that a hashtag called #JusticeForBarb was created and two years later is still being used. In fact, people were using the hashtag in relation to the Brett Kavanaugh hearings in the U.S. Senate. It makes sense that within that time period, Netflix would give her her own movie as the lead. Her brief stint on Stranger Things got her an Emmy nomination, but this movie proves she was worthy of it. Purser gives a great performance here as an insecure teenager trying to reconcile her feelings for a boy with her body-image issues. She’s very sweet and funny in that regard.
Directed by Ian Samuels in his feature debut and written by Lindsey Beer in her feature debut, the movie falls into the usual trappings of Hollywood, romantic comedies where boy meets girl or girl meets boy and they start dating but under some deceitful pretense or dark secret that lurks until being revealed at the end of the second act and then one having to forgive the other. It’s cliché and hackneyed, but, at least this movie has a legitimate reason for copying the tired, rom-com formula. This movie is telling the story of a catfish situation. The nature of catfishing involves deceitful pretense and Samuels uses that as the obstacle in a predictable dramatic arc.
If you watch MTV’s Catfish, dozens of episodes have been done over the past several years that is almost the exact scenario of this movie. This movie adds an extra dimension that distinguishes it from the rest, a little. Otherwise, in terms of teen comedies, there’s not much, if anything new here. We get the same, old match-ups and same, old cliques going after each other. We get beauty versus brains, jocks versus geeks, so-called winners versus so-called losers. By the end, everyone learns that either person in either group is not simply one thing and that it’s not about what’s outside but what’s on the inside.
One thing in this movie’s favor is the fact that it deals with a girl who is overweight and struggling to find love. That’s something most Hollywood films don’t put as their romantic leads. There haven’t been any overweight or even obese women as romantic leads in cinema in a long time. Some people might point to Queen Latifah in Just Wright (2010). She’s not overweight but simply full-figured and even so, it’s one case in a sea of thousands. Some might point to the recent Eighth Grade, but that movie wasn’t romantic. It wasn’t about a girl looking for love or a relationship in that sense. Some might also point to I Feel Pretty, starring Amy Schumer, which sadly was not well received.
Beer’s screenplay gets bogged down in the machinations of maintaining the catfish or maintaining the lie. That lie starts with Purser’s character of Sierra Burgess getting a call from a football player who thinks she’s a sexy, skinny cheerleader named Veronica, played by Kristine Froseth. Sierra starts by limiting their interactions to over the phone, but when the football player wants to see her and meet in person, Sierra employs the real Veronica to help her in the trick. In most catfish situations, the real person has no idea that their identity is being used or stolen. Here, the real person does, which is that extra dimension that distinguishes this. While that makes this akin to a modern-day or millennial version of Cyrano de Bergerac, it does frustrate more fruitful possibilities.
Noah Centineo (To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before and The Fosters) co-stars as Jamey, the aforementioned football player who thinks he’s talking on the phone to Veronica, the thin, pretty cheerleader, but he’s actually talking to Sierra, the chubby, ginger musician. He falls in love with her but she thinks he won’t accept her for how she looks. Despite being a tall, dark, handsome jock, his conversations with her reveal a sweet, sensitive, caring dork, but somehow Sierra doubts that he would accept her regardless of her looks.
Maintaining this phone-deception doesn’t allow this movie to have what I Feel Pretty has or what any Amy Schumer film has, which is the chubby girl actually being with the guy. In Schumer’s films, she gets to be with the guy within the narrative. Here, Purser’s character only talks to him by phone. Therefore, like the recent Love, Simon, this movie keeps its protagonist virtually chaste.
Froseth is good as Veronica. Her character is reminiscent of Sasha Pieterse in G.B.F. (2014). RJ Cyler (Power Rangers and Me and Earl and the Dying Gaul) plays Dan, the best friend to Sierra. He’s mainly reduced as the funny black guy who mostly follows Sierra around. He’s not given a life apart from Sierra. He’s not allowed to express any sexuality at all. He does get a prom date in the last scene, but we don’t even meet the person and that person remains blurred in the background. It’s also odd that the possibility of Dan and Sierra hooking up never arises and if not, why not?
This is a more candy-coated take on the indie film Some Freaks (2017) with Lily Mae Harrington being an edgier and tougher version of Purser’s character. This movie isn’t meant to have any sharp edges or really any edges at all. It plays everything completely safe. There are two jokes that some have criticized. A joke that calls Sierra transgendered and another where Sierra pretends to be deaf are more offensive if they’re not counter-balanced with positive portrayals. There is a deaf character, Ty, played by Cochise Zornoza, but he’s not as active a presence as one might like and there’s no transgendered character at all.
Given that a good chunk of this movie takes place over the phone and trying to fool a person using just your voice and words, this movie also shares a kinship with Spike Lee’s Blackkklansman, as weird as that sounds. But, speaking of sounds, there is a song performed by Purser called “Sunflower” that was very lovely.
Rated PG-13 for sexual references, language and teen partying
Running Time: 1 hr. and 45 mins.
Available on Netflix.